A candlelight vigil Friday night was the beginning of a long healing process not only for Excel Industries employees but also for the entire community of Hesston.
Hundreds assembled at Heritage Park, just a few blocks away from Excel Industries, on Friday night to remember those injured and killed in a mass shooting Thursday.
“Just hug it out, cry, do whatever you’ve got to do,” a vigil organizer said. “Things like this, they burn a hole in you. It’s never going to go away, but you can kind of fill that hole a bit by talking to each other and heal a little bit.”
Many people were still trying to make sense of the shootings, which left four people dead, including the shooter, an Excel employee.
“Never seen it coming from Cedric,” said a second-shift painter at Excel Industries. “For him to take it out on us, his co-workers, we worked hand-in-hand with Cedric every day. It’s mixed feelings, but keep the painters in your thoughts. They were hit the hardest and one of our guys did it. It’s really unreal to think.”
Families and friends hugged each other, spilling tears onto their wax candles.
“Ultimately there’s just love and fear in this world, and I’ve been seeking out where that love is,” said Ryan Bartel, a production manager at the plant. “Yesterday in the middle of the fear there was also a lot of love. What I see here today is a ton of love and so each day, keep putting that love forward. Choose it before fear.”
Bartel was one of the first Excel employees Cedric Ford fired at on Thursday.
He had just left the building to go home when Ford pulled up, yelled at him and fired. Bartel said he took cover behind a car as Ford entered the plant.
He said Thursday’s shootings made him re-assess his life.
“Every time that gun fired, I thought I was going to feel something, getting hit,” Bartel said. “To think that yesterday could have been it has made today, even though it’s hard … I met today with a different embrace than I ever had before, so in that sense it’s good and terrible.
Dennis Britton Sr. stood on a picnic table to update the crowd on his son, who was shot in the leg on Thursday.
As a 20-year veteran who served two tours in Iraq, he said it is imperative for people to take advantage of resources like counseling.
“Especially for those that have never seen shooting, they need to take advantage of that support,” Britton said. “I’m really, really shocked at the amount of support the town has.”
That support was evident in Wichita when two Excel employees went to visit friends in the hospital, they said.
“I had a Hustler jacket on, (he) had a Hustler jacket on, and everywhere we went, people knew who we were,” the man said. “Everywhere we went, people told us they were behind us. … People that didn’t know us from Adam.”
Melissa Boyer, who was close friends with Renee Benjamin, one of the victims of the Hesston shooting, said “it’s going to be hard walking back into work.” Her most recent memories of Excel are running through its parking lot, dodging bullets, before tying a tourniquet around the leg of an injured co-worker.
“It’s going to be hard walking back into that building,” Boyer said.
As the vigil was ending, attendees began singing “Amazing Grace.”
They slowly lifted their candles into the cold February air.
One lifted up a teddy bear.
The vigil ended in a prayer.
“We sure have a lot of questions why something like this would happen,” a man said. “We need to turn our heads to you, Lord, and seek you out in this.
“It’s going to a long, difficult time with you in this, but we’ll make it through.”